BookREVIEW: The Myth of the untroubled Therapist
Reviewer: Dr. Werner Kierski
Marie Adams’ The Myth of the Untroubled Therapist is a more than welcome addition to the canon of psychotherapeutic literature. It is a well-written and accessible study of the emotional and existential struggles therapists can experience. Clearly, the lively presentation of this difficult topic shows that Adams is also steeped in journalism, making her book stand out compared to many dry and limp publications in the field of psychotherapy.
The idea for this project was borne out of Adams’ experience of having been at the receiving end of a professional complaint. The Myth of the Untroubled Therapist is based on a number of interviews Adams carried out with therapists in several English-speaking countries; these interviews formed the basis of her doctoral dissertation. There may be a misconception amongst some people that therapists are sources of profound wisdom, with qualities of Elves who are merely on a visit to our world from Lothlórien (J R R Tolkein 1892-1973). These esteemed therapists possess infinite resources of patience, open-heartedness and compassion, qualities that also illuminate their private lives. Indeed, a young client of mine recently said, “You therapists have got it all sorted.”
If that is how clients and other non-therapists perceive therapists, this book tells the other side - the human side of therapists. It talks about their fears, their un-resolved struggles, their angst and despair. Maybe that is a side some clients don’t want to hear about.
Adams gives ample space and focus to therapists’ troubles, including that of life threatening illnesses, anxiety, depression and death. I found the introduction to the “Black Dog” chapter (p49) the most moving part in her book. She calls for professional organisations to offer more practical support for therapists when they experience intense problems, something that the American Psychological Association appeared not to offer in the face of the suicide of two of its members (p50).
At the core of this book lies the truth that “in a field which purports to work towards the psychological health of others, it is essential that we also promote the good health of our community” (p120). But are we doing it? In a profession that seems to attract a high number of people with a subjugation or self-sacrifice schema, as I argued in an article about bullying amongst therapists (2014), the health of the psychotherapy community probably does not get addressed sufficiently. Adams’ book breaks this culture of silent troubles.
I recommend Adams’ book for inclusion in the essential reading list of every training course to sensitize students to what therapists can go through and help to mitigate heroic and self-sacrificial patterns. Adams warns against such patterns in distinctly existential reflections by reminding us “we are humans” (p102) from which I take it that she is asking us to accept that and take off the cape and red-blue skin-tight outfits.
The book has weaknesses too. While it is based on a small research project with a handful of interviews with therapists, Adam infers that she speaks for all therapists when she repeatedly talks about “us” or “we” - I usually find myself shying away when someone claims they speak on my behalf - but she does admit she is more interested in stories than facts (p119). In chapter 6 she writes about why therapists become therapists; I am not sure whether this can be answered easily for there may be a myriad of unconscious factors involved. I struggle to understand, therefore, whether or not chapter 6 is very ambitious or a naïve attempt to come up with simple answers to complex processes. For example, Adams tries to establish a link between therapists’ early childhood experiences and the modality in which they have trained. What she does here is imply that at the start of training we all know all modalities and we all know the impact of our early life on shaping us; with all that we then make an informed choice. Thus she has Mark musing that he trained as a CBT therapist because as a child he felt so helpless when his mother suffered grief and despair (p78). Is that really why Mark became a CBT therapist or has Adams unwittingly influenced her research participants to speculate about such links? I wonder. I certainly can’t link the choice of the modality in which I first trained to my child- hood experiences.
The therapists who were interviewed provided the material about which Adams could write thereby limiting her narrative. Still, I would have liked to see a chapter on other troubles, such as anger - or am I the only therapist who is troubled by anger? Similarly, I would also liked to have read more about therapists who engage in violence, criminal behaviour, addictions or who have affairs, possibly with clients. I would think that the list of demons is long.
How to deal with these troubles a therapist asks? Adams offers supervision as the highway to addressing them (p115) and, although she mentioned changing supervisors, I find it difficult to believe that these Über-therapists are the remedy for holding clients when dealing with deep troubles in life. We may need other people in life - such as friends, close partners, family, peers and specific professionals - to draw from and lean on during crises. Considering that my own supervision experiences are frequently mixed, which is something other close colleagues experience as well, the role of the supervisor seems exaggerated. I admit I discussed my feelings and despair with my supervisor when my brother died, and this helped, but the suggestion that my supervisor was the only rock in an ocean of despair, like a Bodhisattva, that is distorting reality.
Adams also tells the readers that some therapists will fail to work effectively on their troubles; in fact she doubts that some therapists have the necessary capacity to reflect on “their own process in relation to their work” (p128). She goes on to say that some of the interviews she conducted brought up so much rage in her that she took months to calm down (p129). I find this hard to accept for it was she who opened Pandora’s box by enticing therapists to share with her the depth of their troubles. To react as she did – that is a shame. On the same page she tries hard to come to terms with her reactions by reflecting that what she rejected in those therapists were the parts she rejected in herself. Over this too, I have some doubts, for, as a researcher, she could have been better prepared. The section on her rage towards the research participants highlights an ambivalence she has perhaps not yet resolved.
To conclude, I recommend this book as it fills a big gap, though I feel it is important to read it with a critical eye. And as Professor Simon du Plock writes on the back cover, it is astonishing that something like this has not been published before.
Dr Werner Kierski is a counsellor and psychotherapist, tutor and researcher. Further details on: www.london-counselling-service.co.uk
Kierski, W., Johns-Green, J. (2014) When the bully is a fellow therapist. Therapy Today, April 2014, pp. 20-23